Part of the reason I moved to England was so I would be able to more easily travel to other parts of Europe and the world. This week, that dream was realized: I'm in Paris, just a hop, skip, and two-and-a-half hour train ride from my home.
France is about four-fifths the size of Texas, making it the largest western European country, and is, according to a BBC survey, the fourth most popular country in the world. Paris, its largest city, is a dreamscape of curlicue ironwork, grandiose statues, and leafy boulevards, which, especially in the warmer months, tends to smell alternately of baguettes, cheese, and urine (seriously).
We're currently staying in the fabled Montmartre area, once home to bohemian artists, writers, and hangers-on, now home to artists, tourists and aggressive guys who try to coerce you into buying 20 euro string bracelets. For the most part, it's been all picnics by the Seine, falling asleep in the odd museum, eating far too many baguettes, and generally celebrating the old Parisian joie de vivre. I am, however, looking forward to returning home to England, where my red and peeling nose may finally allow me to be accepted as one of their own "“ not having seen the sun in a few months, I, like other English holiday-makers before me, got a little bit too excited about it.
Anyway, I'm taking a brief break from all that baguette-ing and fromage-ing and meandering up quaint streets to offer up a few quick interesting things that I've learned about France (aside from the fact that people here will pee on anything that stands still and a few things that won't).
Also, while on this trip, I've been reading Lucy Wadham's The Secret Life of France, which has been invaluable in compiling this list as well as extremely entertaining.
1. There's a phenomenon in France called "Yoghurt," when Francophone folks sing (loudly) bizarre homophonic versions of English songs, with oftentimes comic results: Queen's "I Want to Break Free" becomes "I Want to Steak Frites." It's like Franglais, but slightly less intelligible.
2. France is the world's leading consumer of psychotropic drugs, whether prescribed by a physician or not; that fact alone is interesting, but consider also that the suppository tends to be the preferred method of medicinal delivery in France. Of course, France has some of the best healthcare in the world, so maybe suppositories and psychotropic drugs are the way to go.
3. The country that birthed the restaurant industry, France is still on the vanguard of strange innovation in eateries. There's Au Refuge des Fondus, a fondue place in Montmarte that serves up wine in baby bottles, complete with the nipples; at Dans Le Noir, you eat entirely in the dark, served by blind waiters; and at Le Tresor, there's a goldfish swimming in the toilet.
4. "Paris Syndrome" is a medically recognized phenomenon, a psychological breakdown that occurs when Japanese tourists travel to Paris and find the city of their imagination is nothing like the reality. So far, I haven't found myself curled in the fetal position and rocking after being yelled at by a waiter, but there's still time.
5. In the aftermath of the French revolution, it was popular to host dinner parties featuring entirely black food: black wine, black eggs, black cakes, black whatevers, sometimes served in funerary inspired dinnerware. And you could bring a live pig to the table. True story.
6. Ever a people who appreciate a good uprising, this recent global recession has prompted a series of "boss-nappings" in France: Workers have literally been kidnapping their bosses or barricading them in their offices to protest real or rumored job cuts.
7. Perhaps one of the creepiest, although most popular tourist attractions in Paris are the Catacombs, an underground ossuary containing the remains of thousands of Parisians. In the late 17th century, Paris's officials finally decided to dismantle the Les Innocents cemetery, which was so overcrowded with poorly buried bodies that it was actually making the residents of the nearby Les Halles area ill, and to move the bodies to a network of underground mines and tunnels under the city. The bodies, blessed by priests, were conducted to their new home via black-shrouded carts under the cover of night and were then stacked in regular piles underground.
The successful move of Les Innocents opened the floodgates and over the next century, more of Paris's cemeteries would be emptied and the bodies moved underground. In the 19th century, the Inspector General of the catacombs had the idea of placing the bones in decorative designs (hearts, crosses, etc.) to increase tourism. Visitors would walk the winding subterranean paths through the bones armed only with a candle and following a black line painted on the ceiling above. It's been open to the curious public ever since, although only around 200 people are allowed in at a time, to make the two-kilometer trek. Dark, damp and close, the catacombs were perhaps one of the most surreal and coolest things I've seen in a long time.
8. Now, I haven't gone up the Eiffel Tower yet because I'm pretty afraid of heights and while I'm sure the view is lovely, I'm content to look at pictures. And then there's the fact that it moves: The top of the tower actually leans away from the sun, moving as much as 18 centimeters as the metal on the sunny side expands in the heat. In hot weather, it's been known to grow 15 centimeters taller during warm weather. Not much, but too much for me.